The term "police state" was first used in Austria in 1851 to describe the creation of a national police force. Prior to that, order had been maintained at a local level and response was on a per-incident basis, as was the case in most societies. In 1865, the New England state of Massachusetts in the US, established a state police force, the first example of such in the United States.
Over time, however, as state and national police forces have become commonplace, the term has shifted. The connotation of police state now closely relates to totalitarianism, or at least extreme authoritarianism.
Dictionaries now define police state as "a state or country in which a repressive government maintains control through the police" or "a nation in which the police, especially a secret police, summarily suppresses any social, economic or political act that conflicts with governmental policy." From Merriam-Webster: "A political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known procedures."
The term is often used colloquially in referring to fascist and communist governments of the mid-20th century where images of the Gestapo or Stasi, or Russia's FSB come to mind. Certainly, the Roman Empire and the rulers of France during the French Revolution were earlier examples of heavy-handed government control over the political, social and economic life of the population.
More recently, the United States and Great Britain are referred to in conversation and Internet press as becoming (or having become) police states, as surveillance and restriction of a growing number of civil liberties increase as part of the "war on terror."
People who live under a police state experience restricted liberties in areas such as speech, assembly, mobility and privacy. Most police states have a secret police force that enforces the will of the government, or factions thereof, on the people by exerting pressure on them, and that pressure is usually outside the boundaries of existing law.
Police states don't generally advertise the fact that they control their societies by devious means; they work under the cover of ignorant acceptance since the definition of a police state is not clearly understood by the citizens and the true state of freedom in a country is established through the practices of often covert agencies.
The rock solid police state is an authoritarian form of government where dictators make the laws. Today, most regimes around the world fall between totalitarianism and civil libertarianism. Even freer governments may cross the line during national emergencies and times of war because national security usually takes precedence over freedom.
When that happens the term police state is used to describe how that government is handling the situation.
Different political definitions of a police state exist and there are no objective standards to determine whether the term applies when the balance between national security and freedom is changed by certain events. It can be difficult to objectively evaluate the allegations that a nation is or is not becoming a police state, often because so much of the very measures that describe police state are covert.
A typical measuring stick used to determine whether a nation is moving towards a police state is the numbers of laws focused on restricting individual liberties, and measures taken to limit oversight of government, or of specific divisions within a government. War is considered a precursor of a police state since the population is dependent on the police and their government for safety.
Several nongovernmental agencies rank countries as being free, or not-free, based on various measurements of freedom, such as civil liberties, economic rights, political rights and freedom of the press. For instance, Reporters Without Borders ranks countries in relation to freedom of the press. Many of these rankings can be found on the Internet.
Some recent examples of police states include the South African apartheid government – even though there was a pseudo-democracy in place at the time. Nazi Germany's police state exerted repressive controls through a dictatorship created unwittingly by a nominal democracy. Cuba has been and still is a police state, though descriptions of citizens' rights vary depending on the informational source, and North Korea is certainly a good example of limited freedom when it comes to social, political and economic issues.
Some political figures in the US believe that the US is approaching – or may have already become – an example of a police state. That definition is like a ping-pong ball that's smacked from one party to another in Congress but those without political aspiration are gravely concerned and realize this is no game.
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